Brendie Heter: Is that your emergency?


Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: This piece may not be popular with everyone, but it’s about an issue that needs to be discussed. I implore you, resist being immediately offended — hear me out.

I’ve lived in Santa Clarita for 18 years. I have three young children and 16 years of experience interacting directly with the Santa Clarita Valley community as a public servant, as well as work with our local nonprofits.

I love our community. I love that our residents, for the most part, take great pride in our neighborhoods and expect excellence.

However, I’ve noticed a growing obsession on social media about first-responder activity in the community. There are dozens of social media groups dedicated to “updating” the community on various lights or sirens. I personally know dozens of amazing people who participate in these social forums, and I don’t discount all of the value these groups offer.

Useful information can be shared in these Facebook groups. However, I believe a majority of updates aren’t helpful, appropriate or relevant to the public. And frankly, my dear neighbors, just because you see lights or hear sirens doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your business to know details right away.

If the situation warrants an evacuation or your contribution, you’ll know. Law enforcement officials will communicate with people directly affected. Furthermore, in a true regional emergency, it’s imperative to get your information directly from local agencies. During the last major fire in Southern California, I saw post after post in random Facebook selling sites asking about evacuations.

Here’s a tip: Don’t ask for vital safety information in the same group where people sell baby clothes or old Keurig coffee machines.

A simple Facebook post about “police activity at ___” can be instantly viewed by thousands of people. And when residents are consistently reading “I hear a helicopter,” “I see lights,” “What’s going on?” posts, they become convinced crime and danger is increasing. Social media has shrunk our world, making everything appear only a screen away. These same crimes happened before Facebook, but now they are in our face constantly so it feels closer. I believe it encourages panic and unnecessary anxiety in our community.

With that said, a recent study by the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice did find crime in Los Angeles County rose by 5 percent, with a 4 percent increase in property crimes and an 8 percent increase in violent crimes during 2010-2016.

But great news: Santa Clarita was named one of the safest cities in America. We have crime and problems here, and some of them are significant and desperately need our attention. However, we need to get away from social media to truly make a difference.

Concern vs. curiosity

Are we really concerned? Maybe. Could it be possible to have concern and not need all the details? Yes.

I believe some of the administrators and moderators on these groups have a sincere desire to educate and keep the community updated. But it’s my opinion we’ve confused curiousness with concern. We feel better about posting a prayer emoji in the thread and move onto the next social media crisis waiting for our digital input.

In many of these groups, I’ve read commenters sharing the “latest” details on a crash or what they saw. They are calling a friend or spouse who’s on the force, dialing 911 to get details or driving to the scene to take updated photos.

This is not OK.

It was after a particular event a few years ago that I decided to remove myself from these “emergency” groups entirely. It was social media voyeurism and it was disgusting.

Someone posted pictures of paramedics, police and fire trucks outside of a home. “OMG. Anyone know what’s going on? This is at the corner of ___ and ___. [sad face emoji]” Instantly, the post was filled with cartoon hands clasped together. Maybe it was a drowning? Maybe a heart attack? No one knew — but lots of best guesses. Panic set in for one woman when she realized… that was her friend’s home. She eagerly replied to the thread “I’m texting my friend now. I’ll keep you all updated.”

The group overwhelmingly responded with “thanks” or “prayers for your friend!”

No. Stop it.

Whatever was happening at her friend’s house was obviously troubling, but none of our damn business. It wasn’t the neighbor’s place to post a photo and it wasn’t appropriate for the friend to relay details to thousands of strangers.

I spoke to an LAPD 911 dispatcher who wished to remain anonymous. She confirmed that social media “participation” is a big problem and invading privacy. She said, “Please imagine if you were sitting in a car after an accident, scared and injured. Would you want someone taking pictures of your worst moment and broadcasting it on Facebook? No.”

“But I like to know what’s happening to make sure my family is safe.”

If there’s a situation in your immediate area, the local officials will communicate with you. If there’s police presence, they will tell you if you need to evacuate. Keep reading for more information on how to receive alerts.

A few of the unintended consequences, as relayed from those in the field: We are wasting 911 dispatcher time calling for details; we are causing traffic delays when we see a collision and take photos; we are embarrassing our neighbors by posting photos of their crashed cars, homes or personal details online; we are encouraging panic and anxiety in our community; we are possibly sharing bad information and half-truths, hurting reputations and damaging families.

So, what’s the alternative?

More than emojis

My hope is the next time you see police activity, you actually pray instead of taking a photo. I hope you consider attending local community events and vote when you’re given the privilege. If you’re concerned with the teen drug overdoses, learn more about the DFYinSCV program instead of only posting about a dead child.

I hope you sign up for Los Angeles County’s mass notification system for when there is a regional disaster.

I hope you make an effort to meet your neighbors so if there’s an issue in your immediate neighborhood, you can personally ask if they need help.

And if you do participate in these groups, I hope you’re mindful about information you feel you’re owed and what you share.

We are naturally curious creatures. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being curious. However, as your neighbor, I’m asking for self-restraint when discussing, photographing or documenting someone else’s tragedy.

Brendie Heter, of, is a resident in Castaic and has lived in the Santa Clarita Valley for 18 years. She’s a community activist, public speaker, and certified financial coach.

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